George Barbier and the dream of Paris

Every year, millions of people come to Paris dreaming of beauty, elegance, high fashion, personal freedom, decadent leisure, titillating knowledge, romantic affairs, sexual dalliances, and secret places. What they may not realize is that some of their dreams are built on the artistic foundations of Art Deco artist George Barbier (1882–1932) and his contemporaries.


Years ago, Arthur Smith, librarian at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, fell under the spell of Barbier’s artworks and the technical brilliance with which many were printed. His curiosity and diligence in learning more has led to a stunning exhibition at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.

Today, most overseas visitors fly to Paris crammed into crowded airplanes, arriving hot, sweaty and grubby at an unfashionable hour of the day. But Barbier lets us dream that we made the crossing first-class on a transatlantic liner, where we would lounge about, sipping cocktails with glamorous international travellers. This was the world of 1927 he created for an S.S. Île de France menu.


And when we arrived in Paris, there would be parties at which everyone would be dressed in the height of fashion, ready to dance and flirt, as in L’Amour est aveugle (Love is blind).


Perhaps the dance would lead to a quiet tête-à-tête with an intriguing stranger in an exquisite garden. And of course one would be the very picture of elegance.

Have those who dream of elegance today been overpowered by fads and ephemeral fashion? Who today would dare proclaim, as did the Journal des dames et des modes did in 1912, that

Elegance resides in the perfect harmony of thoughts, words, acts, gestures, attitudes and costume. It is through costume that elegance expresses itself most quickly. The elegant person should not wear anything conspicuous or extreme. He refrains from colours that are too crude, clothes of eccentric cut, perfumes that are too heavy, jewellery that is too rich, excessive gestures, vocal outbursts, and words that are too strong. The elegant person is the one who makes himself noticed by means of discretion.*


Ah, discretion. So important. As it is for this lady garbed in an afternoon dress from the House of Paquin. Barbier’s caption, N’en dites rien (Tell no one about this) suggests a mysterious secret.


Who was this artist who drew captivating worlds of wealth and refinement? He was part of a group of talented French artists, most of whom had graduated from the École des Beaux-arts in Paris, “nicknamed by Vogue the Chevaliers du bracelet (knights of the bracelet) for their dandyish attire, flamboyant mannerisms, dapper appearance, and common practice of sporting a bracelet.” Barbier was described as “un élégant jeune homme blond, tranquille et réservé.” He was as privileged as those he portrayed.

As Arthur Smith writes in the exhibit catalogue:

He was the son of a well-to-do Nantes businessman who left Barbier a ritzy apartment building in Paris and the means to maintain a comfortable Paris lifestyle. Barbier enjoyed a luxurious residence, a substantial income to finance his theatrical pursuits, and the resources to acquire an extensive personal library, valuable antiques, and works of art. He also possessed an automobile to facilitate his escapes into the French countryside.

Clearly the stuff of Paris dreams.

In her wonderful book The World of Department Stores, Jan Whitaker describes Paris’s contribution to  the history of the modern department store. The first ones were as far from the modern serve-yourself bargain emporium as it is possible to imagine. Well-dressed staff waited for you and waited on you, as we see in this 1913 image from the cover of an artist’s sketchbook Barbier drew for the department store À Pygmalion.


Arthur Smith describes À Pygmalion as

an imposing multi-storey building located on rue Saint Denis. It was known as a novelties shop that marketed the latest fashions, jewellery, and fabrics to a well-to-do female clientele. This volume illustrated by Barbier featured table linens and elaborately trimmed undergarments, with vignettes of ladies engaged in such activities as playing tennis, boating, skiing, riding, golfing and dining.

When the woman had finished her shopping, she would travel to her next rendezvous by a chauffeur-driven motor car, to emerge impeccably outfitted, where she would be greeted by an improbably slender, tall, and perfectly tailored man.


Did his lips alight upon her outstretched hand or linger close to her cheek while both thought of what the evening might bring?

The title “Envie” (Envy) suggests a slightly sinister undercurrent. Drawn for a collection illustrating the seven deadly sins, the maid holding the hat box is presumably the envious one. But such warnings rarely intrude on Barbier’s world. His world is more properly represented by the yachting costume from Costumes Parisiens.

This picture shown below was circulated with an issue of Journal des dames et des modes. Can you imagine something so extravagant as a magazine published three times a month, limited to 1,250 copies per issue? It first appeared on 1 June 1912, and 79 issues later, on 1 August 1914, it ceased publication.


In addition to “literary articles, poems, society columns and fashion reports,” the exclusive circle of subscribers “received colourful unbound fashion plates entitled Costumes Parisiens, which were engraved on copper and coloured au pochoir. The plates were contributed by leading fashion illustrators of the day including Barbier” and a host of other luminaries. Costumes Parisiens illustrations such as Barbier’s Costume de Yacht shown above occasionally appear in antique shops and print galleries, where they are much sought after and priced accordingly.

The labour-intensive pochoir technique involved making and printing from many zinc or copper stencils to colour the print, which had first been made from an engraving or woodblock print of the original.

As fashion historian Alison Matthews David writes in her introduction to Arthur M. Smith’s exhibition catalogue ‘Chevalier du Bracelet’: George Barbier and his illustrated works,

Barbier captured the modern but rarified world of haute couture fashions, illustrating the chic hats and the changing silhouettes of the best French [fashion] houses, including Worth, Paquin and Poiret. His colourful, sophisticated tableaux commissioned by the elite fashion publications of his era show young, elegant Dianas skiing at St. Moritz or being twirled in arms of Tango dancers, but also indolent femmes fatales reclining on pillows while smoking in their Asian-inspired silk evening pyjamas.

La Paresse (idleness, indolence) is a stunning evocation of the studied indolence so inseparable from many dreams of glamorous Paris. Here we see perfectly what Albert Flament meant when he said of his friend George Barbier, “When our times are lost…some of his water-colours and drawings will be all that is necessary to resurrect the taste and spirit of the years in which we lived.”


And sometimes an introduction to Barbier adds to our appreciation of what we already know and admire. In my case, the Cartier panther. Philippa and I spent Christmas 2012 in Paris. On more than one evening we stopped to admire this view on the Champs-Elysées.


Only later would I learn from Arthur Smith that Barbier created the “iconic piece…the design of the panther that remains emblematic of the House of Cartier to the present day. The image of a classical figure, attired in a Poiret dress, and accessorized by the presence of a black panther, was used on an invitation card designed by Barbier for L’exposition d’une collection unique de perles et de bijoux de decadence antique hosted at La Maison Cartier from 27 May to 6 June 1914. The illustration bore the caption La femme avec une panthère noire, which was reproduced in a 1920s French magazine advertisement for Cartier.”


Yet for all the glamour of the era, there was also a dark side.


The attractive evening dress is from Worth, generally regarded as the first French fashion house, paradoxically started by an Englishman. However, beauty notwithstanding, there is something sinister, or threatening in this image. One senses the need for caution, for this is the “Merciless beautiful lady.” Here is a woman of power, not to be treated lightly or incautiously. Undoubtedly inspired by the John Keats poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” we find there someone who “met a lady” and quite unexpectedly later found himself “Alone and palely loitering.” Too late—

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

Perhaps La Belle Dame sans Merci is the city of Paris itself; sometimes hard to please, but impossible to forget. Far away, one feels alone and palely loitering. Barbier captured and created a particular Paris, a Paris that haunts and holds many of us in her thrall.

Text by Norman Ball. Many thanks to Arthur Smith, Anne Dondertman, John Shoesmith, and all who brought Barbier back to life in this stunning exhibit and fine catalogue.

All Barbier images courtesy Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

*All quotations from ‘Chevalier du Bracelet’: George Barbier and His Illustrated Works, Exhibition & Catalogue by Arthur M. Smith, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, 30 September – 20 December 2013, Catalogue printed by Coach House Press. Foreword by Anne Dondertman, Introduction by Alison Matthews David. Available for $20 Canadian. Click here.


About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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11 Responses to George Barbier and the dream of Paris

  1. Such an interesting piece! I’d never heard of Barbier, but now I’ll keep a look-out for his illustrations. How amazing that rue St. Denis was once the home of a chic department store! It certainly has changed.

  2. Susan Walter says:

    How nice to get some background on the the non-French romanticisation of Paris (which I often struggle with and find difficult to identify with). The early years of the 20thC are a fascinating part of history — full of a curious mixture of hedonism, hope and hysteria, and when you visit the homes of some of those who lived through it, they are a mixture of technical wizardry, unashamed luxury and the completely banal. The division between pre- and post- WWI is often not as striking as people imagine either. Wonderful stuff for the mind to ponder on.

    I very much like the 1912 definition of elegance, and surely that still applies today? Anyone who doesn’t see that as the way to achieve elegance doesn’t understand the meaning of the word I would have thought.

    By the way, I would translate ‘l’Envie’ as ‘Desire’ in this context.

    • “Desire” is probably more accurate, but it was, after all, a series on the Seven Deadly Sins!

      Didn’t Coco Chanel say something like “Elegance is refusal”? She would have been acquainted with Barbier’s work, I’m sure.

  3. This was fascinating and intriguing view on Paris and her charms.

  4. victualling says:

    Barbier’s illustrations are charming. I’ve seen them before but knew nothing about the artist. And thanks for the mention of my book!

  5. victualling says:

    Funny followup. This morning I was checking out of a Boston hotel on Newbury Street when I happened to look at the print hanging over the bed. It was “Isola Bella” by George Barbier!

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  10. Benjamin Hedlund says:

    Wonderful, thanks!😁

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